Hiroshima, 60 Years Later By ROBERT RISTELHUEBER Special to the Planet

Tuesday August 02, 2005

At a time when the daily headlines are all about North Korea and Iran trying to get nuclear weapons, it is a good thing to return to Hiroshima. 

With its broad boulevards, tree-lined rivers and low-slung mountains, Hiroshima today is one of Japan’s most attractive cities, a spacious contrast to densely packed Tokyo, 400 miles to the north.  

But even these assets are a reminder of the event 60 years ago that instantly made this city known throughout the world. The wide streets are the result of firebreaks, open spaces created by city authorities in World War II to halt the spread of fires caused by B-29 bombing raids that were leveling Japan’s cities. 

Hundreds of Hiroshima residents were outside helping to demolish buildings and clear debris for the firebreaks when a single bomb exploded above the city at 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 15, 1945. Those within a half-mile of the center of the blast—the hypocenter—were killed instantly, among them uniformed girls recruited from local schools for firebreak work. 

The mountains surrounding the city acted to concentrate the shock wave, helping to instantly demolish all but the sturdiest of Hiroshima’s buildings. Fires soon raged out of control, consuming the shattered houses and many of their trapped residents who survived the bomb’s blast. 

Thousands of survivors crowded the riverbanks seeking refuge from the fires. But many of them were too weakened from radiation exposure to escape when the tide raised the water levels. Rather than providing refuge, the city’s rivers instead claimed more lives. 

Six decades have now passed since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, making it an international symbol and rallying point for the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.  

Long since rebuilt, Hiroshima today is a bustling city of 1.4 million residents, a major manufacturing center whose factories turn out the latest models of Mazda sports cars. For the young people crowding its nightclubs and busy shopping malls, the bombing belongs to history, not a part of their daily lives.  

In the Peace Park, though, time stands still.  

Occupying a large piece of central Hiroshima, the Peace Park is lush and green, sandwiched between two rivers. Even though tour buses bring a steady stream of visitors, especially schoolchildren, there is a hush here that befits the resting place of more than 70,000 souls. An unobtrusive mound surrounded by trees holds the ashes of many of those killed by the bomb. 

In the center of the park, the Cenotaph contains the names of victims of the bomb, with new names added each year. This is where a ceremony is held each Aug. 6 to commemorate the tragedy, bringing dignitaries from around the world. Nearby are individual monuments to others killed in the atomic blast: Koreans, post office workers, middle school children.  

Almost hidden in a quiet area of the park is the Peace Memorial Hall, which contains the Hall of Remembrance. A circular room with a small fountain, its walls are made up of 140,000 tiles, one for each person believed to have died from the bombing by the end of 1945.  

In another room, names and photographs of Hiroshima’s dead are flashed on monitors. Nearby, computers can be used to search for the names of victims. In the library, visitors can read memoirs and testimonies of survivors. 

Just outside the hall, a visitor can see some of the “Phoenix Trees” that survived the bombing. Despite predictions that nothing would grow in Hiroshima for 75 years, these trees began sprouting new leaves by the end of the year. 

But it is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum that ultimately brings home the reality of the bombing. In its matter-of-fact displays and descriptions, the true horror of that day is made clear to any visitor. 

Look upon a singed wristwatch stopped at 8:15, a shredded uniform of a 12-year old girl caught outside, or a glass bottle melted into an unrecognizable shape, and atomic war suddenly is no longer an abstract concept. 

Alongside photographs of the mushroom cloud and the devastated landscape, the artifacts collected by the museum tell the story better than any words ever can. A customer sitting on steps waiting for a bank to open had his shadow permanently engraved into the concrete by the flash of the bomb. A tricycle sits in a display case, its metal scorched and peeling. A small doll stares out at a visitor, one side of its face burned. 

A wall taken from the inside of a home has long black streaks, the result of the “black rain” that fell when the mushroom cloud rose high into the sky. The radioactive rain was able to streak the inside of the house because its roof had been blown off by the initial blast.  

It was that radiation that made this weapon different from any used before. Many pregnant women exposed to the bomb later miscarried, or gave birth to severely handicapped children. For the first time in history, a generation was harmed by a weapon used before it was even born. 

For years after the bomb was dropped, the people of Hiroshima developed illnesses from radiation exposure. One of them was Sadako Sasaki, an infant on Aug. 6, 1945 who grew up normally but eventually developed radiation-related leukemia. 

The Children’s Monument in Peace Park is dedicated to all young people caught in the Hiroshima bomb. It was erected in 1958 when school children throughout Japan were inspired to raise funds to create a memorial to Sadako, who died in 1955, aged 12. 

Beside the memorial is a glass enclosure with thousands of paper cranes contributed by young people from around the world. It was inspired by the old Japanese belief that a crane can live a thousand years, and that if you fold a thousand paper cranes they will protect you from illness. Sadako spent her last days in the hospital folding paper cranes, but she died just before reaching her goal of a thousand. 

For years, the museum was criticized for not placing the atomic bombing in the context of the war, seeming to portray Hiroshima only as a victim of United States attack. 

In response, the east wing of the museum was opened in 1994. In a country still accused of failing to fully face up to its wartime aggression, the museum now frankly describes the chain of events that led up to Hiroshima, from the Japanese invasion of China to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The museum now makes clear that the atomic bomb was a weapon of war, a war Japan was responsible for starting. 

It also notes that Hiroshima was the headquarters of a major Japanese army, located a short distance from the center of the blast. The scattered remains of those headquarters can still be seen near Hiroshima Castle, which was completely rebuilt after the war. 

On the northern edge of Peace Park stands the Atomic Dome. The former Industry Promotion Hall was close to the hypocenter, but its outside walls of brick and stone managed to survive. The metal columns that once supported the roof arch over an empty, broken shell. 

For years, a debate raged about the Atomic Dome. Some in the city wanted it demolished so that Hiroshima could move away from its past, but ultimately it was decided to preserve the ruins. Today, it’s become a symbol known throughout the world, an icon for the anti-nuclear movement. 

Standing next to these ghostly remains on a warm summer’s day, a visitor can almost imagine what it was like the day the bomb dropped, when a busy, modern city was reduced to ashes in a blink of an eye. 

Three days after Hiroshima was destroyed, the second—and last—atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, ending the war. The sufferings of those two cities have helped prevent the use of nuclear weapons by any country in the last six decades. 

And yet, nuclear disarmament seems more distant than ever. If North Korea and Iran manage to enter the nuclear club, they will join Pakistan and India, those old enemies, who have both tested atomic bombs in recent years. Israel is believed to have a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. And despite the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still have thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles in silos and submarines, each one hundreds of times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. 

There are even voices in Japan advocating that their country also develop atomic weapons, if North Korea manages to become a nuclear threat. 

For those reasons, Hiroshima today may be the most important city in the world. Its mere existence reminds us of the madness that men can do.  



Berkeley’s Peace Lantern Ceremony  

Gather to float lanterns in remembrance of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all victims of war. Decorate lantern shades, hear Japanese flute and drum performances, on Sat., Aug. 6, from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Aquatic Park, at the west end of Addison Street, two blocks west of Sixth St. and a block south of University Ave. 595-4626. Lanterns2005@progressiveportal.org.